Popes are fascinating, whether invented or real. A few years ago, the TV-series The Young Pope, starring Jude Law in the title role, was a big hit both in Europe and in America. In 2019, The Two Popes, a film based on the relationship between former Pope Benedict XVI and the present Pope Francis, received numerous accolades among critics.
I like it, too; I watched it during one of the Danish COVID-19 lockdowns. The next day, I remember thinking that if I were at my office, I would have swung by some of my colleagues to put them a question I am sure they have not gotten before: Who is your favourite pope of all time? Instead, I tried to google the sentence but got no unique hits.
Of course, the answer depends on what kind of pope you want. For some diehard conservatives (not sure I could find one among my colleagues at the department), it might be Pius IX, whose Syllabus of Errors from 1864 openly denounced modern liberalism and who presided over the First Vatican Council in 1869-70 and its proclamation of the twin principles of papal primacy and infallibility. For liberals, it might be Pope John XXIII who called the Second Vatican Council, which in the years 1962-65 reformed the Church and reconciled it with democracy and political liberalism. For those who emphasize social justice, Pope Francis—taking his papal name after St Francis, patron saint of the poor—seems a good bet. And despite all the negative stuff I have been reading about his stint as Jesuit provincial superior in Argentina during the 1970s, Francis or Jorge Mario Bergoglio, played by Jonathan Pryce, comes off as very likeable in The Two Popes.
However, the importance and eccentricities of these contemporary or near-contemporary popes pale when compared to some of their predecessors. In a new book, co-authored with Jonathan Stavnskær Doucette, we have looked at the real thing: the great medieval lawyer-popes, who dominated the European political and religious scene in an era where all roads literally led to Rome. My own favourite (thank you for asking) would be Innocent III, a Roman nobleman and canon lawyer who became pope at the tender age of 37, and whose papacy from 1198 to 1216 left several important legacies.
A lot of what Innocent did, we would today consider unsavoury—especially the way he directed crusades against what he considered heretics and infidels. But our book mainly looks at the way his papacy affected political institutions and the multistate system.
We could not have done this were it not for the insights of generations of medieval historians, including Walter Ullman, R.W. Southern, Gaines Post, H.E.J. Cowdrey, Francis Oakley, Harold Berman, Richard Kay, Chris Wickham, Colin Morris, Robert Bartlett, and R.I. Moore. As they have shown, separating the religious sphere from the secular sphere is not really meaningful when we analyse political developments in medieval and early modern Europe.
One of the prime examples of this is how during Innocent’s watch the Roman Church adopted the principles of representation and consent, which were to leap quickly to the secular sphere, there to lay the foundation for medieval representative institutions or parliaments, and hence for the European tradition of representative government. These were arguably the two greatest political innovations of the middle ages and, as virtually all other intellectual innovations in this period, they hail from the Church.
The internal balancing act of European state-formation
In our book, we show more generally how the medieval Church bolstered what we term the internal balancing act of European state-formation: vibrant social groups matching or at least constraining rulers. Besides inventing representation and consent—and hence the medieval parliaments which spread to almost all polities in Western and Central Europe in the period 1200-1500—we locate the origin of urban self-government in interactions between ecclesiastical institutions and townsmen.
This story takes us back to the so-called Cluniac reforms, which began in southern France in the tenth century and the aim of which were to secure the freedom of the Church by fighting simony (selling ecclesiastical offices) and clerical inchastity (nicolaitism). The core recruits of the Cluniac reform coalition were monks; the name itself comes from the monastery of Cluny in Bourgogne.
“We locate the origin of urban self-government in the interactions between ecclesiastical institutions and townsmen.”
But the coalition included laymen, often fervent believers, as the monks depended on secular arms to police the freedom of the Church. For this reason, the Cluniac reforms came to engulf towns across much of France, northern Spain, the Rhineland, and northern Italy. Townsmen inspired by the reforms came to realize that they had to take political power to implement the Cluniac reforms in the face of resistance from unreformed lord-bishops and their followers. The result was urban political autonomy or self-government, which first spread in the vicinity of Cluniac monasteries and which mainly affected bishop towns.
The Dominican mendicant monastic order spread the principle of representation to towns further afield after its founding in 1216. The Dominicans were crucial vessels of representation because they were so prominent in the townscape. As opposed to the Cluniacs, their influence also extended to the peripheral areas of the Latin west, including Scandinavia.
Finally, a more general aspect of the internal balancing act was that the Church itself established political independence. European state-formation would have looked very different if rulers did not constantly have to negotiate with a strong clergy, independent townsmen, and the nobility over, inter alia, the wherewithal for warfare, succession, and public peace.
How the medieval Church reshaped European society
But the medieval Church shaped European societies in other ways than this. It was the one institution of late antiquity that survived the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century, and it carried the torch of the Roman world after the Empire collapsed. In Edward Gibbon’s unkind but strangely apt metaphor, the medieval papacy was “the Ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof.”
During the early middle ages, it was only within monasteries that men of letters survived to tell posterity of their thoughts and to preserve a flickering light of learning. In the words of British sociologist Perry Anderson, the Church constituted “the main, frail aqueduct across which the cultural reservoirs of the Classical World now passed to the new universe of feudal Europe, where literacy had become clerical.” This towering intellectual position allowed the medieval Church to reshape European societies in fundamental ways.
“Virtually all intellectual innovations in the middle ages hail from the Church.”
Perhaps most consequentially, its doctrines about heirship and marriage transformed European family structures. In the early Middle Ages, the Church forbade a series of hitherto common heirship practices, including consanguineous marriages (for instance between cousins), divorce and remarriage, adoption, and concubinage. Children born out of wedlock were treated as illegitimates who could not inherit property or the family name. The first prohibitions seem to have been introduced at the Council of Neocaesaria in 314 but it was only in the eleventh and twelfth century that the Church started to actively enforce them. This gradually paved the way for the monogamous marriage and the nuclear family—or, as British sociologist Jack Goody put it, for “out-marriage” to replace the “in-marriage” that had characterized even the Roman world, and which is still common in the Middle East and India today.
In this way, the Catholic Church set the stage for primogeniture, the succession order where the eldest son inherits the patrimony. In another book published by OUP, I and my two co-authors, Andrej Kokkonen and Anders Sundell, have analyzed the consequences of this for political stability. Jonathan and I instead look at how it affected the international system. We develop an insight made by the German historian Otto Hintze almost a century ago, in an essay where he identified the competition between religious and lay power as the root cause of the European multistate system.
In context: from “bad popes” to papal reform
To understand this, we need to place medieval lay-religious relations in context. Until the second half of the eleventh century, Western European monarchs, such as the German emperor, controlled ecclesiastical institutions in their own realm. Most important was the right to appoint bishops and abbots, who made up a kind of surrogate state apparatus in a situation where there was no organized lay administrative structure.
This control of ecclesiastical institutions was merely one aspect of a more general model of “sacral monarchy.” According to historians, European monarchies in this period approximated the “Byzantine” model variously termed ceasaropapism or Rex-Sacerdos, where religious and lay power are fused rather than divided. Monarchs were even seen as the vicars of Christ, while the papacy was all but powerless, mired in scandal and corruption and controlled by Roman noble families or German emperors who took the trouble to travel across the Alps and visit Rome. Indeed, the 900s have come to be known as the century of the “bad popes”, or even the “pornocracy” of the papacy.
”The competition between religious and lay power [is] the root cause of the European multistate system.”
However, this changed after AD 1050 with the papal reform program. What happened was that the Cluniac reforms, described above, were transplanted to decadent and impious Rome. In the first place, the aim was therefore to fight simony and nicolaitism, not only locally but within the ecclesiastical hierarchy more generally. This cleaning of the papal house was sponsored by the strong and pious Salian Emperor Henry III, who in 1046 deposed three rival popes and in 1049 appointed the first reform pope, his relative Bruno of Egisheim-Dagsburg, henceforth known as Pope Leo IX (r. 1049-1054).
Leo was followed by a string of other reform popes, and the push for church reform climaxed in 1073 with the election of another mercurial pope, Gregory VII (r. 1073-1085). Gregory famously threw down the gauntlet to Henry III’s eldest son and heir, Henry IV. The result was the Investiture Controversy from 1075 to 1122, which centred on whether popes or emperors had the right to appoint bishops. The story about the uncompromising conflict between Gregory and Henry is the stuff great fiction is made of. It includes Gregory’s affinity for and debt to Henry’s pious parents, the vainglorious young king’s chastening at Canossa in 1077, and Pope Gregory’s humiliating flight from Rome in 1084 and later death in exile in Salerno in 1085.
Gregory thus lost the last battle against Henry, but he may be said to have won the war, posthumously at least. Later reform popes such as Pope Urban II, the initiator of the crusades, shored up the reform coalition and an exhausted Henry V, son of Henry IV, who he deposed on the last day of the year 1105, came to terms at Worms in 1122.
This great conflict sowed the seeds of the European multistate system. To weaken Henry IV, Gregory attempted to call on and bolster other Christian monarchs, even in the newly Christianized northern European periphery. As the medievalist H.E.J. Cowdrey puts it:
Gregory sought to foster among the nations something like a balance of power: more distant peoples were to be established in their independence from outside political supremacy and in the habit of obedience to the papacy; by such means, the power especially of the Salian monarchy in Germany might be kept within bounds.
Or as Pope Gregory himself described it in a letter to Danish King Sweyn Estrithson: “the king of a distant realm was, by strong and righteous rule, to compensate for the unreliability of rulers who were nearer to Rome.”
”The medieval Catholic Church was the engine behind the power pluralism of European state-formation, the crucial precondition for modern states, the market economy, and modern democracy.”
Later reform popes would continue this divide-and-conquer policy. This development climaxed around 1200, where popes such as the aforementioned Innocent III proclaimed the principle “the king is emperor within his own realm” (Rex in regno suo imperator), the complete opposite of the old theory of the emperor lording over the Church and other monarchs. In this way, the Church stimulated what we term the external balancing act of European state-formation. In another new book, Sacred Foundations, Anna Grzymala-Busse further documents these religious roots of the modern state and state system in a very convincing way, enlisting other new historical data.
The medieval Catholic Church was thus the main engine behind the power pluralism—within polities and between polities—that came to characterize European state-formation, seen by generations of scholarship as the crucial precondition for the later development of modern states, the market economy, and modern democracy.
These developments were obviously not intended; they were unanticipated consequences of popes fighting to secure their own political, religious, or even personal interests. This, of course, is exactly why popes are so fascinating. Most of them have probably been fervent believers, convinced that they pursued the ends of the Church—paving the way for the vita religiosa—not their own self-interested concerns. But they have also been humans of flesh and bone; sometimes callous, oftentimes jealous men with sympathies and antipathies, ready to rationalize their mundane actions and needs with religious arguments. The annals of papal history contain the kind of drama of novels which are difficult to put down. At different times, popes have performed miracles of law-making and statecraft. At other times, vanity and folly have led them astray, and the number of backstabbing popes is legion. What’s not to like!
Featured image by ArtHouse Studio, via Pexels, public domain